Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven plays on Monday, March 1 on Turner Classic Movies as part of their “31 Days of Oscar” series. I wrote a feature on the film for the TCM website.
Malick’s use of the naïve narrator and the lovers on the run from a murder (they even create a short-lived Eden-like existence in the forest at one point) recalls his debut feature, Badlands (1973), but the resemblances end there. The story of Days of Heaven has echoes of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah placed in the grandeur of the endless horizon and majestic skies of the Texas plains. The manor house and the grain elevators of this wheat empire stand like monoliths watching over the unending plains. The images of workers in their landscape look like impressionist paintings that cinematographer Almendros creates on the screen with the natural light of his location (Alberta, Canada, standing in for Texas).
Malick wanted to evoke the silent cinema of the teens, which was shot with available light and strove to create clear, sharp, vivid images. Almendros added to that the sensibilities and visions of such American painters as Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, artists who strove for an evocative simplicity of image and lighting. In his autobiography, “Man With a Camera,” Almendros praised the working relationship with Malick, who not only approved of but encouraged his efforts to dispense with traditional Hollywood lighting and push his experiments with available light photography, and a core group of collaborators (including set designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Patricia Norris) who were equally dedicated to recreating the era in all its detail and texture.